Debating Canada’s Future: A Night at Montreal’s Sohmer Park, 1892

By Aaron Boyes

On July 1 2017, we, the people of Canada, will celebrate our country’s 150th birthday. Over the past several years federal, provincial, and municipal governments have been gearing up for this historic event by planning elaborate celebrations to mark the triumphs of our great nation. Yet this confidence and pride in Canada was not always evident. In fact, in the 1880s and 1890s, a mere twenty years after Confederation, there emerged serious discussions concerning the country’s political future. The country was stuck in a prolonged and seemingly unending economic depression despite numerous attempts to solve it.[1] Linguistic strife, which had been decreasing in the first two decades after Confederation, once again became a national issue, thanks in large part to the execution of Louis Riel in 1885. On top of these issues, a unique and distinct Canadian nationalism was struggling to develop, which enabled regionalism to dominate Canadian identity. At the same time, Canada was faced with several international dilemmas with the United States, based largely on the rights of fishermen in and around Canadian waters. These internal and external pressures led some people to determine that Confederation was a failure.

This article explores one of the more forgotten episodes in Canadian history. On November 28 1892, a sizeable crowd attended a political conference at Sohmer Park in Montreal. The topic of this conference: Canada’s future. If Confederation was a failure, as many had come to believe, what was the best option for the young Dominion moving forward? Four “options” were presented to solve this important question: maintain the status quo, Imperial Federation, independence, or annexation to the United States. It was at this conference that four speakers addressed the issue of Canada’s future based upon the four proposed “options.” The discussion and debate about Canada’s future that night at Sohmer Park was but one instance in an era when Canada’s destiny was under great scrutiny.

In the mid-1880s, continentalism – the idea that Canadians, being citizens of North America, should embrace their continent and the ideas associated with it – began to spread throughout the country. As part of the wave of continentalist thinking, a sizable portion of Canadians began calling for a new free trade treaty with the United States, along the same lines as the one that had existed between 1854 and 1865. The Conservatives, under the full direction of master politician Sir John A. Macdonald, sought to establish free trade with their southern neighbours, but were wary that closer economic relations would upset the political status quo. By 1887, the Liberals, then under the leadership of the newly elected chief, Wilfrid Laurier, adopted the platform of “commercial union” with the United States. Under this policy the two countries would establish a common tariff on all goods coming into North America and trade between Canada and the United States would be duty free. While many Canadians were thrilled with the prospect of securing free access to a market of sixty-five million – compared to the small five million Canadians – others dreaded the unseen consequences. Opponents to commercial union believed that the plan would lead to the eventual annexation – or absorption – of Canada into the United States.[2]

Over the next several years, an intense debate consumed the country: what was to be Canada’s relationship with the United States? The most outspoken continentalist of the era was the controversial Goldwin Smith, a British-born, Oxford educated historian who had spent many years in both Canada and the United States. Smith became the spokesperson for the continentalist movement and frequently wrote about the need for Canadians to accept commercial union with the United States. It should be mentioned, though, that Smith also believed that Confederation was a failure and that Canada’s destiny lay in union with its southern neighbour.[3] Yet Smith and his supporters of closer economic relations with the United States came up against stiff opposition. It was during this era that a conflicting movement assumed significant popular attention: the movement for Imperial Federation.[4] Imperial Federation is somewhat difficult to define since there were differing concepts as to what it would entail; but in essence it meant that Canada and the other overseas Dominions would send representatives to an Imperial Parliament in London that would govern the affairs of the Empire. The imperialists, who found their match for Smith in George T. Denison, believed in the need to strengthen the ties with Britain and to shun all things American. To them, it was better to enter into a new free trade agreement with Britain and the Empire, and not with their continental neighbours.

Between 1887 and 1891 the merits and disadvantages of closer economic relations with the United States were highly debated and contested. Opponents to the plan were able to successfully label supporters of free trade as traitors and their actions treasonous. The use of what is called the “loyalty cry” was in fact so successful that Prime Minister Macdonald used it to win the 1891 federal election.[5] The question of free trade with the United States had seemingly been settled. Yet in the wake of the election another movement, one that had been developing alongside that for commercial union, became the new focal point in Canadian politics: annexation to the United States.[6] Instead of debating Canada’s economic future, Canadians were publicly discussing their political future. From these debates four options were presented: maintaining the status quo, joining in an imperial federation, complete independence, or annexation to the United States.

Numerous public meetings were held across the country in 1891 and 1892, especially in Ontario, to decide what was best for Canada. In response to the ongoing dialogues, a political conference was organized at Montreal’s Sohmer Park on the evening of November 28 1892. Sohmer Park, located in Montreal’s Saint-Marie quarter, was an ideal place to hold this public forum – having first opened its doors in 1889 the park would eventually host a number of concerts, speeches, and other popular spectacles.[7] As Canada’s largest city at the time, Montreal was also the perfect place to hold a meeting of this kind, especially with its distinct blend of English- and French-speaking residents, a growing manufacturing sector, and access to the rural farms that still scattered the shores of the St. Lawrence.

Advertisements were printed in newspapers to promote the conference in the days leading up to the event in hopes of drawing the largest possible audience. On the day of meeting, La Minerve, a Conservative organ printed in Montreal, informed its readers that “Messrs. Cardinal, Lemieux, McGowan and Myers, of Toronto, all distinguished speakers, will discuss the colonial system, Imperial Federation, independence and annexation. There will also be a vote.” [8] Another Montreal newspaper, La Patrie, even made a special invitation to the women of Canada to come out and make their voices heard and take an active part in shaping the country’s future: “Women are especially invited to assist at this interesting meeting where we will discuss the future of the country. We want them to boldly express their views on this occasion, which is why they are taking part in the vote at the same level as the men.”[9] Another way to draw a crowd was to hold a vote on the four options after the meeting. This advertising paid off nicely for the organizers of the conference, as between 5,000 and 7,000 people attended, a majority of which were French Canadians.[10]

There were four presentations by four speakers that night. The first was J.T. Cardinal, the President of Montreal’s Club Conservateur. Second was Archibald McGoun, a professor of law at McGill University. Third was Montreal lawyer Rodolphe Lemieux. Fourth was the former Crown Attorney for Orangeville, Ontario, Elgin Myers. Three flags adorned the stage that night, with each speaker sitting before one of them. Cardinal and McGoun sat before the Union Jack, while Myers sat in front of the Stars and Stripes of the United States. Lemieux, however, sat before a new flag, the so-called “independence flag.” The Toronto Globe reported on 29 November 1892 that the new flag was “a curiosity, consisting of three stripes of the English, American, and French, red, white and blue placed longitudinally, and in the background seven gold stars representing the seven provinces of the Dominion….”[11] With a large and enthusiastic crowd present, the speakers took the stage and presented their ideal political future for Canada.

First to speak was J.T. Cardinal. Delivering his address in French, Cardinal informed the crowd that the maintenance of the status quo was in the best interest of Canadians, especially Canada’s Francophone communities. Speaking directly to the French Canadians in the audience, Cardinal outlined that since French was an official language at the federal level, and that French-language education was protected under the Canadian constitution, keeping things as they were would be the best option. As subjects in an Imperial Federation or as American citizens after annexation, the French-speaking community in Canada would become an insignificant minority adrift in an English-dominant political world.

Following Cardinal was Archibald McGoun. Speaking in English, McGoun gave an address promoting the benefits of joining in an Imperial Federation with Great Britain. Canada, he argued, was already closely connected with the mother country and the majority of the Canadian people wanted to strengthen that tie, especially in the face of the expanding American republic – this, of course, was mostly directed to English Canada. Thus, as subjects in a Federation with the other overseas Dominions, Canadians would have more access to the markets of the British Empire while continuing to enjoy the same benefits they currently enjoyed, such as protection by the Royal Navy. Overall, McGoun’s message was that if Canada did not form an Imperial Union with Britain then the United States would annex the young country by force.

Next to speak was Rodolphe Lemieux, who, according to many reports, was by far the most popular orator, and he delivered his speech in French. Championing the cause of Canadian independence proved to be an especially popular idea amongst the French Canadian attendees that evening. Greeted with loud applause, Lemieux outlined that since the first governor of New France, Samuel de Champlain, up to the current Governor General, Lord Stanley, Canadians had only known the colonial regime. But this, he argued, needed to change. Lemieux used his thirty minutes to promote a grand vision for Canada as an independent nation that controlled its political and economic affairs despite its small population size. He also expressed the belief that as an independent nation the regional and linguistic strife that plagued the country would disappear, as all Canadians from coast-to-coast would unite to create a new and distinct Canadian nationality.

The final speaker was Elgin Myers. He championed the cause of annexation to the United States. Earlier that year, Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat publicly dismissed Myers from his post as crown attorney for his outspoken support of union with the United States, thus starting several months of heated exchanges between the two in the press. Myers began his address by outlining that Canada could never hope to become a strong and economically powerful country while continuing to be a dependent of a European nation. In fact, Canada’s natural affinity should be with the people of North America and that a grand continental union with the United States was Canada’s destiny. Addressing the large contingent of Francophones, Myers then explained that French Canadians would actually have more power to protect their language, religion, and customs as American citizens because of the importance of States Rights and the lack of a federal veto over State laws. He concluded his speech by stating that the offer to join the United States, as had been issued in 1775, was still valid and it was not too late to join the American union. It was reported, however, that loud and rowdy McGill University students jeered and booed throughout his presentation and continually interrupted Myers’ speech. In fact, it became so disorderly that the organizers had to play “God Save the Queen” following Myers’ speech to calm the crowd! [12]

With the speeches concluded and the four options fully presented it was time to distribute the ballots. Each person in attendance was given a ballot that listed the four options, and once all the votes were tallied they would be made public. Although five to seven thousand people attended, only 2,999 ballots were counted. The final tally broke down as follows:

  • Maintaining the status quo: 364
  • Imperial Federation: 29
  • Independence: 1,161
  • Annexation to the United States: 992
  • Spoiled: 453

These results were not surprising considering what was going on in Canada at the time.

The young generation of Canadians, especially those born after 1867, grew up in an era of increasing Canadian nationalism. Although this distinct national identity was forming at a seemingly glacial pace, the youths of Canada began to identify more with their nation and their continent than with the Britain and the Empire. There is no doubt that the majority of English-speaking Canadians were still very proud to be subjects of the grandest Empire the world had ever seen, but the direct connections to Britain were slowly fading and a more Canadian national outlook was taking shape. In French Canada, young intellectuals had for several years been discussing the pros and cons of Confederation and how the Canadian state may not be the best option for la survivance.[13] Independence was especially popular amongst the young generation of French Canadians.

The responses to the conference also provide some interesting insight into the political world of Canada in the 1890s. Some newspapers, such as L’Etendard, La Minerve, Le Canadien, and the Toronto Globe, applauded the conference, hailing it as a great success not only for the city of Montreal but the country as a whole.[14] Yet it was the negative comments that surfaced that are the most amusing. One Montreal newspaper, La Presse, stated that the conference was only for entertainment and that it did not reflect a serious political discussion. The Montreal Gazette stated in a headline that a “good natured crowd” assembled to listen to the speakers, but they laughed throughout the speeches – yet no other newspaper made reference to this. The Gazette even informed its readers that the results of the voting were a farce because the “annexationists who ran the meeting voted several times.” This accusation of cheating is difficult to verify. Certainly, some who attended the meeting were supporters of political union, and some of the conference organizers may have even held annexationist sympathies. However, no other newspaper seems to have believed the voting was purposefully fraudulent. More than likely, the Gazette, which was controlled by the Conservative Party, wanted to diminish the seemingly growing sentiment in favour of annexation with the United States, which had some support in the early 1890s.[15]

Despite these negative reviews, the conference should be viewed as a success as it enabled a large audience to listen and learn about four possible options for Canada’s future, while also making their voices heard. In 1893, Quebec’s poet laureate, Louis-Honoré Fréchette, stated that the only way to truly know the desires of the people with regards to their country’s future was to hold a free vote.[16] A vote like the one Fréchette proposed did not happen, but the polling that took place on the night of November 28 1892 was the closest that Canadians came to a plebiscite on the issue of their Dominion’s future.

So as Canadians get ready to host national festivities, have picnics, and shoot fireworks into the sky on July 1 2017, we should celebrate all that we have accomplished as a nation. But we should also remember that Canada almost did not survive its infancy due to many internal and external pressures on the young nation. It took hard work and sacrifice from the women and men who believed in the Canadian experiment and who were not willing to make a hasty decision to achieve dramatic results. The conference that took place at Sohmer Park in November 1892 is almost a forgotten event in Canadian history, but it is one example of how our planned sesquicentennial celebrations may not have been necessary if the Canadians of the 1890s had decided on a different political future for their country.


 

Aaron Boyes is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Ottawa. His dissertation, currently in progress, explores the importance of ideas in the political union movement in Canada and the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of Strata, the University of Ottawa Graduate Student History Review.


 

Suggested Titles for Further Reading

To learn more about Montreal’s Sohmer Park, see Yvan Lamonde and Raymond Montpetit, Le Parc Sohmer de Montréal. 1889-1919, Un lieu populaire de culture urbaine (Québec: Institut québécois de recherché sur la culture, 1986).

Canada’s connection to the British Empire and the dream for Imperial Federation has been addressed in numerous excellent works. The most complete remains Carl Berger’s Studies in the Ideas of Canadian Imperialism, 1867-1914 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970).

The topic of political union with the United States has in recent years received more historical attention and consideration. The two most influential studies, and the two that proved to be excellent sources for this article, are: Damien-Claude Bélanger, Prejudice and Pride: Canadian Intellectuals Confront the United States, 1891-1945 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), and Christopher Pennington, The Continentalist Movement in the Politics of Canada and the United States, 1887-1894 (Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2007). Although now over fifty years old, Donald Warner’s The Idea of Continental Union: Agitation for the Annexation of Canada to the United States, 1849-1893 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1960), remains an essential text about annexationism in North America in the nineteenth century. For a more in-depth examination about this conference, see the author’s MA Thesis, “Canada’s Undecided Future: The Discourse on Unrestricted Reciprocity and Annexation in Quebec, 1887-1893,” (Unpublished, University of Ottawa, 2010).

Numerous newspapers were consulted during the research for this article. Some of the most used were: the Globe (Toronto), La Patrie (Montreal), the Gazette (Montreal), L’Etendard (Montreal), Le Canadien (Montreal), La Presse (Montreal), La Gazette de Joliette (Joliette), Le Quotidien (Lévis), L’Écho des Deux-Montagnes (Deux-Montagnes). Newspapers not only provide excellent firsthand accounts of events and public opinion, they can also be quite entertaining – especially reading the advertisements for all sorts of “miracle” concoctions. Thankfully, many of these newspapers have been digitized and are accessible free of charge. Sean Kheraj’s article, “Canada’s Historical Newspaper Digitization Problem, Part 2,” on activehistory.ca has an excellent list of accessible newspaper databases.


 

[1] Some people in Nova Scotia, a province that was vocal about its opposition to Confederation for several decades, even threatened to abandon the Dominion if the economic reality did not drastically improve.

[2] Christopher Pennington has provided a complete examination of the continentalist movement that emerged in Canada and the United States at this time. It is from his doctoral dissertation, The Continentalist Movement in the Politics of Canada and the United States, 1887-1894 (Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2007), that this information has been synthesized from.

[3] Smith made these sentiments quite clear, especially in two publications: The Political Destiny of Canada (Toronto: Willing & Williamson, 1878) and his most famous, and one of the most controversial texts in Canadian history, Canada and the Canadian Question (Toronto: Hunter, Rose, and Co., 1891).

[4] The imperialists have been examined in great length in many historical monographs. The most important of these, however, is Carl Berger’s, The Sense of Power: Studies in the Ideas of Canadian Imperialism, 1867-1914 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970). For those interested in the dichotomy between English- and French-speaking imperialists, see Sylvie Lacombe’s, La rencontre de deux peuples élus: comparaisons des ambitions nationale et imperial au Canada entre 1896 et 1920 (Québec: Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 2002).

[5] For a complete overview of the 1891 election, including the importance of the use of the loyalty cry therein, see Christopher Pennington, The Destiny of Canada: Macdonald, Laurier, and the Election of 1891 (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2011). This book is especially enjoyable since it provides an excellent academic examination of the election, while at the same time is written to be accessible to a large audience.

[6] In my doctoral dissertation, I prefer to use the term “political union” over “annexation”, yet both terms are appropriate since they were used, however erroneously, interchangeably in the late nineteenth century.

[7] Yvan Lamonde and Raymond Montpetit, Le Parc Sohmer de Montréal. 1889-1919, Un lieu populaire de culture urbaine (Québec: Institut québécois de recherché sur la culture, 1986), 21.

[8] La Minerve, 28 November 1892. Author’s translation. The original French reads: “MM. Cardinal, Lemieux, McGowan et Myers, de Toronto, tous orateurs des plaus distingués, discuteront le système colonial, la federation imperial, l’indépendance et l’annexion. Il y aura un vote au scrutin.”

[9] La Patrie, 28 November 1892. Author’s translation. The original French reads: “Les dames sont spécialement invitée à assister à cette intéressant séance dans laquelle on discutera l’avenir du pays. On veut qu’elles expriment hardiment leur opinion en cette circonstance, et c’est pour cela qu’elles prennent part aux suffrages au même titre que les hommes.”

[10] There is a debate as to the exact number of attendees to this conference. Contemporary sources differ as to the official number. La Patrie stated 10,000; Le Quotidien in Lévis listed 9,000; the Montreal Gazette said 4,000; and the Toronto Globe quoted 7,000. The actual number was in all likelihood somewhere in between all of these varying sources.

[11] Toronto Globe, 29 November 1892.

[12] Toronto Globe and Montreal Gazette, 29 November 1892.

[13] Robert Rumilly, Honoré Mercier et son temps (Montréal: Les Éditions du Zodiaque, 1936), 510.

[14] For some examples see the reports from the following newspapers: L’Etendard, La Minereve, Le Canadien, and the Toronto Globe, 29 November 1892.

[15] There are numerous excellent historical works that in some manner explore the political, economic, and social aspects of late-nineteenth century Canada. Although now fifty years old, a few titles of the Centenary Series provide necessary background information. For example, see: W.L. Morton, The Critical Years: The Union of British North America, 1854-1873 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1964) and P.B. Waite, Canada, 1874-1896: Arduous Destiny (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971). Donald Warner’s, The Idea of Continental Union: The Agitation for the Annexation of Canada to the United States, 1849-1893 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1960), examines all three annexation movements in North America during the nineteenth century, and outlines Canadian and American reactions. For a more recent study of Canadian attitudes toward the United States, Christopher Pennington’s, The Destiny of Canada: Macdonald, Laurier, and the Election of 1891, looks at the differing conceptions of loyalty and nationalism in Canada under the umbrella of arguably one of the most famous elections in Canadian history. This book is also based upon research stemming from Pennington’s 2007 doctoral dissertation, The Continentalist Movement in the Politics of Canada and the United States, 1887-1894. Finally, to understand the differences between how English- and French-speaking Canadians viewed their southern neighbours, as well as their divergent ideas of nationalism, see Damien-Claude Bélanger, Prejudice and Pride: Canadian Intellectuals Confront the United States, 1891-1945 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011).

[16]Louis-Honoré Fréchette, “The United States for French Canadians,” The Forum, 1893.

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